There are endless articles and blog posts about COVID and the workplace, whether managing remote workers, implementing a safe return to work, vaccination mandates, testing procedures, masking, reasonable accommodation requests on all of these issues, and all of the related issues that have been on the forefront for the past nineteen (!!) months. One topic, however, that has not received as much press, at least per my internet searches, is handling ADA requests for service animals in the workplace as a reasonable accommodation. With so many people working at home, with their zoom cameo at-home animal co-workers at their sides, employers should very much anticipate that as workers return from the virtual to the actual workplace, reasonable accommodation requests to bring service animals will come along as well.
To be clear, there is no direct federal law, including the Americans With Disabilities Act, that requires an employer to adopt a pet-friendly policy. As with any other request for a reasonable accommodation, an employer is obligated to engage in the interactive process with an employee if the request is made because of an employee’s disability, as is done with all reasonable accommodation requests.
Employers are not required to consider an accommodation to permit all types of animals in the workplace. Permitting a fully trained and accredited service dog who alerts its human to an oncoming epileptic seizure to come on-site is a far different cry than an unruly pet monkey named Jupiter who provides amusement and laughter for someone who suffers from anxiety, for an extreme but enlightening example.
Employers should rely on and borrow from the definitions set forth in the context of public accommodation requests under Titles II and III of the ADA, which defines service animals with specificity. In differentiating between a pet and a service animal, employers should consider what specific work or functions are to be performed by the animal related to the requesting employee’s disability. The seizure-alert dog is onsite to help its owner take swift action for help when about to have a seizure, which may result in the worker being able to safely stop doing any significant heavy lifting or other physical task that is an essential function of his or her position. Jupiter the pet monkey, however, who is along to provide comfort and companionship (and amusement), but not direct service or assistance to permit any essential function to be performed, will most likely not need to be permitted on-site as a reasonable accommodation.
It will not always be simple to assess when an animal should be treated as a service animal. Of course, the employer will need to consider if the arrangement would present an undue hardship and the employee needs to demonstrate how the animal will aid them with their disability to perform the essential functions of the job. Requiring proof of certification that the animal is a service animal should not be the “end of the discussion.” While certainly relevant, there is not a universal program to certify animals as service animals. That said, employers can ask for training, health history and other medical information and documents to ascertain that the animal is safe to bring onto the workplace. The pet being lonely at home is not a protected reason to bring the animal on-site, to be clear. No matter how framed, employers should brace for the requests to come.